Why I’m getting up at 5am for 50 days

When the amazing Umisha of Little Bird Kefir told me that she had set herself a challenge to wake up at 5am each morning for 50 days straight, I wasn’t that surprised. Consistently she is one of the most dedicated people I have met in terms of pushing herself creatively and in pursuing personal growth. I always feel like I’ve had a strong cup of coffee after talking to her!

But then she explained that she was trying to recruit participants to join her in this challenge in an effort to be more accountable and increase motivation to complete the challenge. Was I interested?

I only hesitated because starting on December 1st seemed to be dialling up the difficulty level quite a bit – all those Christmas drinks, socials, Christmas holidays themselves (all about the lie-ins surely) and then the bleak January mornings that make you think maybe humans should hibernate.

But it also appealed in terms of being a bit of an experiment. What might you be able to do with an additional 50-75 productive hours? (I usually try and get up between 6.30-7.00 on a work day, and don’t much like sleeping past 8-8.30ish – excepting apocalyptic hangovers) Plus, maybe the opportunity to share in the challenge with other people would make it more achievable, appealing to both my competitive streak and mortal fear of letting people down.

So I signed up! From December 1, until January 19 the alarm is set for 5am.


The game plan

So what are my goals for these #50earlydays? I thought about pursuing a single project, and I still think this would be a good way to use the time. If I was in the planning stages of  a project like writing a novel, or building a website then I think this is a great way to sprint through some of the execution.

However, I also feared getting bored of a single project, or making it into a chore by doing it every day. They say confidence in success is a precursor to success, so I decided to try and make the challenge fun and achievable, whilst hopefully completing some of the things I always put off doing, despite them being priorities.

Without getting into specifics, I grouped the things I want to do more of or to try into three categories:

  • Becoming stronger
  • Developing skills
  • Having more fun

Applying gamification theory

By chance I had been reading quite a bit about gamification in the weeks leading up to this, so I thought that this might also be an opportunity to test out a few of the tools from that field. Essentially gamification describes mapping out the features of gaming that make the experience stimulating and compulsive (even addicting) and exploring how they could be applied to more banal everyday situations that we could use help getting motivated to do. Examples might include exercise, quitting smoking, saving money – or indeed waking up early.

Then I tried to apply some of the most commonly mentioned elements of gamification to try to inspire me towards progress in these three areas:

Social pressure/accountability

There is already a Whatsapp group of the challenge participants which is a great motivator. As I mentioned earlier, it tricks my brain into thinking I would be letting people down AND losing face if I don’t get up at 5 when others are. I’m also following advice to post about the challenge on social media. This blog is the cherry on top – the idea is now I will look like a total idiot to the world if I fail! Boo to that.

Progression towards a goal

The goal is 50 days, but without being visible it means nothing much. Over a year ago, my oldest and best friend Alice made me a chart that knocked my 5-a-day smoking habit on the head. It was like a 21-day long advent calendar. Each day I pulled off a tab to reveal a really cute handwritten encouraging message (progression towards a goal PLUS fear of letting down a loved one), and if I made it the day without smoking I got to put a sticker on that day (delivering a ‘reward’ dopamine kick). While I did smoke four cigarettes in those initial 21 days, it was successful in killing off the daily habit and I have stuck with it.


That got me into charts. So I felt that what this challenge needed was a good chart. Or four, which is what I have, haha. One main 50-day long chart (with mini milestones) and three challenge charts (one for each of the priority areas). These last ones are an experiment that might or might not work…

Degree of choice/personalisation

Like in a game when you get a choice of which items to invest in that level up certain skills, the idea of my three challenge chart-type things is that each morning I can choose which area I want to focus on each morning. If I am not feeling like going for a run, or maybe I feel unwell I can choose something from one of the other areas. As I do more challenges the idea is I will progress up the pyramid, with the goal to complete each one – but I will only manage that if I do one of the challenges most days (there are 45 in total!).

Element of surprise

In lots of games you are trying to find and unlock chests – which are made more intriguing and covetable by the fact that you do not know what’s going to be inside. To experiment with this mechanism, I set myself mini-milestones (11 days, 21 days, 38 days, 50 days) at which I can earn a reward. These I wrote down, folded and numbered (my poor memory works in my favour here – its only been 5 days but i can only remember one). Upon reaching a milestone I will roll a dice and get one of these rewards. The theory is that this should be more motivating than if I knew in advance what I will get at each stage.

Avoidance of loss

Umisha’s rules include 5 veto days – which will be extra essential over the holiday period. However, veto days will put an end to my streak (4-day streak by day 4 wooo). I am plugging into the ‘avoidance of loss’ in another way too: if I fail at getting up at 5 outside of my veto days, I will have to donate £20 to charity. I thought about making it a donation to something awful like the NRA but I just can’t. My financials are such that £20 is enough of a sum to feel like a loss – especially over the Christmas period.

Higher purpose

I have heard this described as the feeling you get when you are playing a game where your character is the only one with the ability to save the world –  or perhaps at work when you are given an important task that only you have the skills to execute. This gives you a sense of calling, when vitally important outcomes rest on whether you personally succeed or fail. Bit tougher to apply this one for the #50earlydays challenge! The most I could do was write a statement of commitment. If you want to get really grandiose, when you think about it we are all the only person who truly has the power to change our own lives and behaviours. Always harder when it’s not external though! I was’t really able to think of a creative way to apply this.

Day 3: Going for a run for the first time in about six months!

My game plan

I will report back on how this all goes, it may be that none of it works, but so far, I have the outline of rules for the 50 days, goals and rewards for achieving them. The last thing I needed was a routine for the morning.

There are a lot of people online who brag a lot of hot air about ‘morning rituals’. It’s not really for me, although earlier this year I did apply some advice from Hal Elrod of The Miracle Morning. I’m not a huge fan but his concepts have been useful to help me get up earlier in a better frame of mind for the day.

So I have tried to build on that to map out my morning game plan that I need to do each day. This is because a) I think it will help when I am tired and grumpy and brainless and can’t remember why I am awake at 5am and b) hopefully by doing some of these things every or most days for 50 days will help some of them stick to day 51 and beyond.

The whole thing takes about 1.5 – 2.5hrs depending on what the challenge is that day and if I am heading to the office later or not. Currently in Kigali my commute is just over 10 mins by moto or I can walk in 50 mins which can be a great part of the morning. The sun also rises at roughly 5.30am all year round here. I anticipate it all being much harder in London!

  • 5.00: wake (I set my alarm and have it far away so I physically have to get out of bed to switch it off)
  • Brush teeth (I’m now 50% awake), wash face (70% awake)
  • Drink at least a pint of water (have to be awake not to drown – I’m now pretty much fully awake)
  • Make bed
  • Meditate – usually solo, sometimes a guided practice on YT – 10-30 mins
  • Crunches and stretches – 10-20 mins
  • Check a day off the main chart and make a coffee 🙂
  • Choose a challenge. Most are 45-60 mins
  • Shower (/bucket bath in Rwanda)
  • Write  – try to do 5 min journal here to establish priorities and psych self up for the day
  • Time to get on with the day!

NOTE: I do NOT think that the above is likely to be sustainable for me past 5o days. There are of course days when I just won’t have the time for all this, and there are prob too many things there to adopt all at once (we all know how it works out for those people who make too many New Year’s resolutions and don’t stick to any!). I know I am prone to setting myself up for failure by putting two much on my plate, so a disclaimer is in order for myself:

As long as I get up at 5am and do at least two of the following, that is a success: meditate / be grateful / writing / movement / reading / learning.

So far I am on Day 4 and the inevitable slip hasn’t come- yet. Of course, I am living away from home and its fun distractions from early bedtimes and early mornings – we’ll see how it goes from the 10th when I will be back in the UK.

At this point, I think I can get used to waking at 5. Harder is the other side of the coin – you have to go to bed pretty early! I can manage with 6hrs sleep if I don’t have to do anything especially stressful  or mentally taxing the next day, but I much prefer 7.5hrs. Which would mean 9.30pm bedtime!

Anyway, we shall see…

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